Broadway Viaduct Construction Project Displaces Local Businesses

The bridge's demolition will also remove the odd little buildings perched atop it

Ponte Vecchio: A pedestrian passes the street-level building with multiple entrances on the Broadway Viaduct, a rare example of buildings-on-a-bridge. Some think of it as Knoxville’s version of the famous “Old Bridge” shops in Florence, Italy.

Photo by Eleanor Scott

Ponte Vecchio: A pedestrian passes the street-level building with multiple entrances on the Broadway Viaduct, a rare example of buildings-on-a-bridge. Some think of it as Knoxville’s version of the famous “Old Bridge” shops in Florence, Italy.

Photo with no caption

Beginning in 2013, the Broadway Viaduct, which spans the Norfolk-Southern railroad tracks between Jackson Avenue and Depot Avenue, will be completely demolished along with the odd little buildings perched on it, and replaced with a new structure. According to TDOT spokesperson Mark Nagi, the bridge replacement is necessary due to the viaduct’s “deteriorating condition.”

A bronze plaque on the viaduct reads, “Broadway Viaduct Erected 1927 by the City of Knoxville and the Southern Railway Company.” (Here's a view of the viaduct from the 1920s.)

The present incarnation of that rail company, Norfolk-Southern, still has a lot of influence over the bridge. NS spokesperson Robin Chapman says NS “prepared a preliminary engineering estimate” in 2005 after learning TDOT planned to replace the viaduct—a project initiated in 2002.

TDOT has worked with both NS and AT&T (located nearby on Depot Avenue) in the design process of the new bridge. NS wanted the new viaduct raised to 23 feet to accommodate double-stacked freight cars. But in order to avoid adjustments to the more than 60 AT&T lines located at the north end of the bridge, the bridge could be raised no higher than 21 feet.

To satisfy requests from both companies, TDOT “had to get innovative with the bridge design,” says Nagi. NS agreed to a design in which the bridge will be 23 feet over the main NS track, but only 21 feet (raised from 18 feet) over a connector track under the north end of the bridge closest to the AT&T building.

The new structure will be taller and longer than the existing bridge, extending north along Broadway Street to minimize the grade. To make way, three businesses are to be partially or completely razed in the coming year.

Pumps of Tennessee, formerly on the corner of Broadway Street and Depot Avenue, was the first to reach an agreement with TDOT and now resides in a new location on Willow Avenue.

Across Broadway, Graning Paint, a small sky-blue building sporting a rainbow mural, is owned by Ken Adams, whose father started the company in 1955. Today Ken’s son works there, too. They moved to their present location in 1965.

“I’ve been here every minute of it,” says Adams.

It is clear Adams feels a little jerked around by TDOT. About a year ago TDOT approached Adams, telling him they only needed Graning’s parking lot for a project involving the viaduct. Later they said they planned to build a retaining wall in front of his building while they raised the street. In the end, TDOT told him they needed his parking lot and his building. TDOT will buy the property, and Adams is in negotiations to buy a building on Magnolia Avenue. He hopes to move to the new location by the end of this year.

“After 49 years I’m concerned about my customers finding me in a new location,” says Adams who seems disappointed but resigned to the move.

A third business affected by the project, Smith and Hammaker, a company that manages office records, will not have to move, and according to co-owner Butch Smith, it could not survive one.

“The veins and arteries that run in this building—we would kill ourselves if we cut them,” says Smith, referring to permanently-installed equipment and lines to nearby AT&T.

Smith and Hammaker has operated from the long brick building partially under the viaduct since 2005.

Smith is not familiar with the history of the building, but notes the name “Hackney” appears above one of the doors. HT Hackney, a Knoxville-based wholesale grocer founded in 1891, was the most well-known occupant of the building, although it has also housed various offices and shops.

The unused white-painted brick second story of the building is the most unusual and visible part, with three entrances at street level on the viaduct. TDOT will buy this second-story part of the building and demolish it before construction on the viaduct begins, leaving the downstairs intact.

These unique buildings-on-a-bridge are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, except once in Florence, Italy on the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge famous for its jewelry shops perched above the river. Those have managed to stick around since the 1300s. The 85-year-old buildings on the Broadway Viaduct are suspended above railroad tracks, boarded up, and clearly in disrepair, but retain a simple elegance that has managed to capture the imagination of some, including Property Scope’s Josh Flory who thought they’d make great avant-garde galleries or artists’ studios. Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, recently learned of the demolition plans and is in contact with TDOT about “incorporating the storefronts into plans for the new viaduct.”

Smith is not thrilled TDOT is taking part of his building, but he feels he has been treated fairly.

“That’s progress,” he says.

It might or might not strike some as unfair that the large corporations of NS and AT&T had a lot of input in the design process, while the three small locally-owned businesses did not learn of the project until 2010 and were not given much say in their fate.

I first learned of the viaduct project from employees of Graning Paint, accompanied by the rumor that Norfolk-Southern was raising the viaduct to accommodate taller passenger cars.

The source of the rumor may be a WATE story from January 2012 that claims, “TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi...says a railroad company asked for the bridge to be raised in case double decker passenger trains need to pass through in the future.”

The passenger train rumor turned out to be wishful thinking. When asked, both TDOT and NS clearly stated the goal is to haul more freight.

Many people interviewed expressed cynicism over Norfolk-Southern’s involvement in the viaduct project. This might be partly due to the lack of transparency and behind-the-scenes machinations in NS plans for an intermodal railyard in Jefferson County, a development initially leaked in 2009 when a third-party firm began to approach farmers about selling their land.

Chapman claims the request to raise the viaduct is “not related to the planned terminal in New Market.” But the tracks that pass under the Broadway Viaduct will soon be able to move twice the amount of freight, and lead straight to New Market where Norfolk-Southern plans to build the 280-acre intermodal rail facility.

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Comments » 3

Swanky writes:

And no one has yet thought to LOWER the tracks instead of raising the bridge? I think it is a lot easier to dig out some dirt!

timmay143 writes:

That's a shame. I always thought that building was cool and ripe for reuse.

TomB writes:

Erfurt, Germany, also has a famous medieval stone bridge (over a small river, not a railroad) with half-timbered shops and other buildings on top of it.

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